Friday, October 18, 2013

Shaking things up in Cubicle City

My first office was shared.

I shared it with a fellow who was fairly eccentric, but relatively quiet. But it had a window. And a door. 

The only people in cubicles were the admins.

Pretty soon, I had a private office. It had a door. And a window. The walls were pretty thin, and I could overhear every conversation occurring on the other side. Including one in which my boss, in the days leading up to a re-org, argued for keeping me in his group because I didn’t know enough to go into the other guy’s group.

Despite the thin walls, it was an office. And it was good. (For the record, my boss won the argument.)

Then we moved to new digs, kitty-corner across the street.

I lucked out and got a good office. It was shaped like a pie wedge, and was right on Mass Ave, overlooking the old Orson Welles Cinema, where I got to watch a demonstration against some movie – I’ve forgotten what it was – that was supposedly anti-Blessed Virgin.

Then we closed up shop in Cambridge and headed to the wilds of Lexington, where I lucked into a huge double office. With a door. With a window. And, although it was a double-wide, I never had to share it. I draped the second desk with an India-print bedspread and used it as a credenza.

Then I changed companies, and fell into cubicle city.

I didn’t want to be in a cubicle environment to begin with, but at Wang the cubes were particularly icky: small, dark, and dingy.

Some cubicles at least had doors, giving some false sense of privacy. Mine didn’t. Until my techies commandeered one for me.

Even with the door, the lack of privacy and the noise level was excruciating. I felt like I was working in the Tower of Babel.

When I left Wang, I was back in an office. Initially, that office was interior, small, dark and, except for a desk, unequipped. Over the first few days, I was able to scrounge up a chair, computer, and phone, but I had to bring my own phone cord from home.

While the start was not auspicious, office-wise, once I escaped that first hole, I always had a private office, and it always had a window, and it always had a door. Until our lease was up and we had to move. Into the new, all cubicle environment dictated by our new owners.

So, open office ‘r us, which worked out okay because we had ample conference rooms of various sizes.

Next I found my way to Genuity, where the company was growing so crazily that, they put me temporarily in a small office that had been set up for cubicle dwellers to use if they needed a bit of privacy.

Soon enough, I was in my permanent office: large enough for a small conference table but, alas, windowless. You had to be a VP to snag a window.

Then I was at NaviSite, which was primarily cubicled. About half of the private window offices that ringed the cubicle pen were reserved for senior managers and executives from the remote companies that rolled up into Navi. These folks were in-house a couple of days a quarter. Some of these remote senior managers and executives were jerky enough to keep these offices locked so that no one could use them. Others left them open – they were, after all, empty, as no one kept any files or personal items in them – so us cubicle dwellers could use them if we needed to have a private conversation, or just to hear ourselves think.

Because those are the kinds of things that, even with all the mania for collaboration and open offices, don’t disappear.

I do suspect that, somewhere along the line, even millenials will want to have a conversation that everyone isn’t in on. Or work independently, and need a quiet environment that will let them truly concentrate.

But before offices un-buzz, it looks like there’s a bit more buzziness that needs to shake out of the system:

By shifting employees from desk to desk every few months, scattering those who do the same types of jobs and rethinking which departments to place side by side, companies say they can increase productivity and collaboration.

Proponents say such experiments not only come with a low price tag, but they can help a company's bottom line, even if they leave a few disgruntled workers in their wake. (Source: WSJ.)

Sort of like in grammar school, we’re the nuns liked to mix things up every once in a while. Maybe it’s needed by the new generation that’s used to more frenetic pace, more perpetual action. So they get antsy. Just like third-graders

In recent years, many companies have moved toward open floor plans and unassigned seating, ushering managers out of their offices and clustering workers at communal tables. But some companies—especially small startups and technology businesses—are taking the trend a step further, micromanaging who sits next to whom in an attempt to get more from their employees.

Let’s see, we’ve got this nominally open environment – everyone sitting at a big table – but now they’re going to tell me who I need to sit next to and for how long every day?

"If I change the [organizational] chart and you stay in the same seat, it doesn't have very much of an effect," says Ben Waber , chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a Boston company that uses sensors to analyze communication patterns in the workplace. "If I keep the org chart the same but change where you sit, it is going to massively change everything."

OMG. If I’d moved offices or cubicles every time there was a company re-org, I would have spent an average of three weeks in each location. That can’t be good for productivity (or employee sanity). On the other hand, it would probably have made just as much sense to change where people sat as it did to do a re-org, which seldom did anything much other than accelerate whatever downward spiral we were on.

At Kayak, CTO Paul English:

…uses new hires as an excuse to alter the existing layout and thinks carefully about each worker's immediate neighbors. He takes into account everything from his employees' personalities to their political views to their propensity for arriving at work early—or, more important, their propensity for judging colleagues who arrive late.

"If I put someone next to you that's annoying or there's a total style clash, I'm going to make your job depressing," he says.

Depressing to me would be having to shift my office every couple of weeks, but I’m just an old fogy stick in the mud.

One of Kayak’s recent initiatives was to dispatch a loud-mouth to go sit with a group that was deemed too quiet. After a few weeks of her presence, the quiet group had loosened up a bit and the loud mouth instigator was removed. My guess is that they kept up the chatter for a while after she was gone, if only to say how delighted they were that she’d left. I suspect they reverted to their original mode. Maybe these folks just liked to work in quiet and got a lot of things done that way. Wonder if Kayak would have parachuted a quiet person into a nest of loud mouths to clam them up a bit? (Probably a bad idea. The quiet one might have had a nervous breakdown.)

I just plain don’t like the idea of office-as-coffee-house.

Maybe I feel that way because I’m an oldster, but I’ve officed and I’ve been cubicles, and officed is better.


And a shout out to my brother-in-law John for sending me the link to this article.

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